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Sri Lanka looks to South Africa amid rights pressure

Published on 19/02/2014

A Sri Lankan delegation headed to South Africa Wednesday to study the work of a post-apartheid truth commission as pressure mounts on Colombo to address allegations of war crimes against ethnic Tamils.

Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was leading a five-member team which would see what lessons it could learn from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after the demise of the white supremacist regime in South Africa two decades ago, his spokesman said.

“The delegation will spend two days studying the TRC and also keep the South African President (Jacob Zuma) informed about the reconstruction work we have done in the northeast,” the spokesman Viraj Abeysinghe told AFP.

The visit comes amid a push by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay for an international investigation into claims that Sri Lankan troops killed up to 40,000 civilians in the final stages of a war with separatist rebels.

Most of the fighting during the 37-year conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels was concentrated in the northeast, large parts of which were reduced to rubble by the end of the war in 2009.

Pillay is due to formally ask the UN Human Rights Council next month for the probe while noting that Sri Lanka has failed to honour promises to investigate credible allegations, according to a leaked report published in Colombo at the weekend.

The South African TRC worked on the basis of restorative justice rather than punishing those guilty of gross human rights abuses, a model that Sri Lanka has expressed interest in replicating.

At a Commonwealth summit hosted by Colombo in November, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron warned that he would push for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s rights record unless President Mahindra Rajapakse’s regime ensured accountability by March 2014.

Rajapakse has already rejected Cameron’s deadline and insists that the army did not kill any civilians while routing the rebels, who had been fighting for an independent homeland for the ethnic minority Tamils.

The army is mainly made up of troops from the Sinhalese ethnic majority.

The United States, which had censured Sri Lanka twice at the UN Human Rights Council in the past two years, has said it will move another resolution next month.

The UN estimates that the Tamil conflict cost at least 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.